'Zionism was always about building an exemplary society'

Dr. David Breakstone on why the aging World Zionist Organization, contrary to popular opinion, should continue to exist.

Dr. David Breakstone 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Dr. David Breakstone 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The World Zionist Organization will turn 113 thisAugust. And while its past may be the stuff of legend, its future iswidely seen as the bleak twilight of an organization that can neitherdisband nor achieve anything worth the trouble.

Founded at the First Zionist Congress in Basel in1897, the WZO was the parent organization of such bodies as the JewishAgency and the Jewish National Fund. It was, in effect, theimplementation agency for the Zionist plan to rescue the Jewish peopleduring the bloodiest century in Jewish history. Outside North America,few Jews are not the direct products of, or directly protected by, thestate and the idea to which the WZO played midwife.

But fast forward to 2010: The state is born, the Hebrewlanguage thrives, and Jews are - more or less - safe from the whims ofgenocidal dictators. So what now?

In April, in honor of WZO founder Theodor Herzl's 150thbirthday, the organization is mounting a spectacular cross-Europeantrip tracing the life, political struggles and ultimate posthumoustriumph of the "seer" of the Jewish home-to-be. From Paris to Basel,Vienna to Budapest and on to Jerusalem for Israel's Independence Day,this is more than just a birthday party. For the WZO, it may be aboutsurvival itself.

"This trip is either about giving Herzl the birthdaypresent he deserves, a new and meaningful WZO, or giving theorganization a respectful burial," says Dr. David Breakstone, thetrip's planner. Breakstone is head of the Department for ZionistActivities in the WZO, in charge of creating a Zionist conversation ina world that is profoundly skeptical about whether the old organs ofpolitical Zionism have anything new to say.

Israel is now a self-sustaining Jewish nation. What's left to talk about? "Have you read [Herzl's 1902 utopian novel] Altneuland?" Breakstone asks. I hadn't.

"Nobody has. But that's a very important startingpoint" to answering the question, "because it tells us that when wetalk about Zionism being not just about the founding of Israel, butabout what kind of Israel we're building, then we're not inventing thisas a new agenda. Making a better society, talking about the issues thatface us - that is the heart of Zionism itself."

Instead of talking only about the "crisis Zionism of [Herzl's political manifesto] Der Judenstaat - that Jews need a shelter, a safe place to live" - the WZO must start talking about "the positive Zionism of Altneuland - about creating a model society."

Breakstone's job, as he sees it, "is to prove that this goal isnot new or a result of pressure from outside groups or criticism of theZionist movement, but that it is authentic and genuine Zionism goingback to Herzl himself." Zionism, Breakstone insists, is "aboutsomething good, about confronting the problems of creating a goodsociety."

SO WHAT is Zionism's good society? "Herzl was apolitical in thesense that everybody today can claim Herzl as their own. People oftensay, 'If he were around today, he'd be in our party. He'd send his kidsto my school,' or whatever. Maybe the blessing of his early death [in1904 at 44] was that he was able to descend from the stage of historyearly," before becoming identified with one Zionist party or another.

But that doesn't mean he was not opinionated. In Altneuland hetried to tackle every foreseeable trouble the new Jewish state wouldencounter, from religion-state tensions to Arab minority rights tosensible public transportation policy.

Set in a glittering future 1923 and framed as a visit to thenew Jewish state by two friends, one Jewish and the other Christian, Altneuland is a work bound up in the tension between a strongly universalist vision of society and a very Jewish one.

"For one thing, he internationalized Jerusalem and establishedthere a Palace of Peace," a kind of international aid organization,Breakstone explains, "where donations are received all the time fromall over the world, because people know that if they are struck by anatural disaster, they can turn to the Peace Palace in Jerusalem foraid."

Similarly, "an Arab minister sits in the government of theJewish state." Jerusalem, in Herzl's vision, becomes a kind ofuniversalist hub for the world.

"So is that part of Zionism? How do we understand that? Doesthat mean Ehud Barak's offer to share sovereignty over Jerusalem withthe Palestinians is Zionism? I don't know, but we can certainly speakabout it."

But Herzl was also, profoundly, a Jew.

"People who criticize Herzl for caring about these international aspects forget that in Altneuland thissecular - or let's say nonobservant - Jew also rebuilt the ThirdTemple. Not only that, he filled it up with worshipers. In hisidealistic vision, he described Jerusalem on Friday evening withthousands of people wending their way through the streets to the HolyTemple and to the synagogues."

A Third Temple stands in Herzl's imagined Jewish capital, but aChief Rabbinate does not. "Herzl wrote that the place of the rabbi isin the synagogue. He's terribly misquoted about that; he never meantthat we don't want to hear the rabbis. He specifically wrote that therabbis have a critical role to play in strengthening the moral fiber ofsociety, but not by getting involved in the political aspects of it.One of the most heroic characters in Altneuland, portrayed incrediblysympathetically, is Reb Shmuel."

But Herzl's idealism was not limited to the lofty realms of identity and religion.

The treatment of Israel's poor workers was part of Zionism fromthe start, Breakstone says. Herzl's national flag was composed of sevengold stars, one for each hour of the working day.

He also worried about desertification and water. "The visitors in Altneuland godown to the Dead Sea and there's this deafening noise of generators.The Jewish state built a canal from the Mediterranean to the Dead Seathat created green areas and waterfalls and hydroelectric power in thedesert."

His imagined Jewish state is also worried abouttransportation and pollution. "The visitors get off the boat in Haifa,and there are hardly any cars. They look up and see a kind of monorailsystem," the height of fin-de-siècle public transportation sciencefiction.

Herzl "found a way to live with the tensions wefeel of wanting to be universal on the one hand, while protecting andnurturing a Jewishness that we can live with. Herzl predicted theseproblems 100 years ago. I'm trying to show that Zionism, and byextension the WZO, is authentically and originally about the problemsof creating a good society," insists Breakstone.

So should the WZO take a stand on Arab integration policies orthe public railway system? "It's not about agreeing with Herzl, butabout raising these fundamental issues that we have to confront,"Breakstone says.

AT THE Herzl Museum in Jerusalem, Breakstone is in charge offilling thousands of young visitors' minds each year with these vastquestions. Many thousands of schoolchildren and soldiers visit themuseum, as well as tourists from abroad.

For them, "Herzl, properly used as a mirror for looking at thecurrent Israel, is effective in engendering debate. The kids don'tagree with everything, but it's a starting point for them to say,'That's interesting,' or 'I reject that.' And it's a way of engagingJews in the Diaspora with the process of state building going on here."

A trained educator with a PhD in the subject from the HebrewUniversity, Breakstone laments that the children and soldiers "haven'tdealt with these kinds of questions before. Even the teachers haven't.When I do teacher seminars, I ask how many have read Der Judenstaat or Altneuland. A few have read the former, but I don't think a dozen have read the latter out of hundreds and hundreds that I've asked."

Before the WZO takes any stances on whatyesteryear's Zionism demands of modern Israel, it has theresponsibility to educate Israelis about the vision the foundingfathers had for their country.

This vision - or rather, these competing visions - were notmere moralizing. "Herzl," for one, "really went into detail as to howthis was going to work. That's what the WZO should be about. Who isgoing to put these issues on the agenda of the Jewish people if not us?Substance and ideology and education are our raison d'etre."

Can the current WZO, made up of warring political factions,often defunct overseas Zionist associations and scheming localpoliticians usually devoted to vying for easy salaries, be a vehiclefor serious educational programs?

"You're right. I'm frightened about the situation of the WZO;it isn't up to these challenges in its current structure. But weshouldn't disband it. Instead we have to go through a radicalreorganization, streamlining, re-thinking our operational compositionand developing the Herzl Center as our ideological educationalflagship." But "we should continue to be part of the Jewish Agencysystem, and once in a while actually meet and talk about what theagenda of the Zionist movement is, and be heard."

And most importantly, the WZO should bring the message of thecomplexity and idealism of Herzl - and thus of Zionism itself - to theIsraeli and Diaspora education systems.

"My job here is to be a dreamer. If my job is just to pushpapers and not to try and think beyond the limitations about theorganization, then what am I here for?"

The beleaguered WZO stands at a crossroads, Breakstone worries,between oblivion and transformation into a meaningful educationalvehicle. "I'm trying to say that we still have challenges before us."And a challenge, Breakstone believes, is also a purpose.